He sat at my streetside table and ordered us a pair of BeerLaos. Looked older than his 40-odd years. Wiped the sweat from his pale forehead and frowned at the horde of daytrippers back from Angkor Wat. “How’s everything here in Siem Reap?” I asked. I was visiting from Korea to renew my visa and to see if I could start an art project in Cambodia.
“It’s good,” he said in his understated Canadian way. “You should meet my new girlfriend, she’s finished with school in an hour. She’s a lot of fun. I call her my Apsara, one of the temple’s celestial dancers. Her proportions are exactly like the sculptures at Angkor.” But is she your apsara, I wondered? What makes you think she belongs to you?
I moved there several months later. His girlfriend was twenty, vivacious and determined to find the right man. She was finishing high school thanks to tuition paid by her Canadian boyfriend, and received a stipend from an old French boyfriend – a BBC correspondent – living in Phnom Penh. Most of it went to her family, who appeared to expect it instead of a dowry; now that neighbors knew she’d had western boyfriends, her reputation was tarnished in every way.
We would go out for coffee and on photo shooting trips around World Heritage temples and in the stark Cambodian countryside. After she left my middle-aged english-teaching friend for a series of younger, handsome guys with better career prospects, she would tag along with me to a local French bar to find her next one.
Now she spends her time shuttling between Bangkok and Cambodia with her partner of the past four years. She’s moved on up from overweight English teachers to a handsome French hotelier who keeps his mistresses out of sight, if he has any.
It turns out she wasn’t his Apsara after all.